India has an estimated eight million cycle rickshaws creaking and clattering around its dusty streets as cargo movers, couriers and taxis. They’re one of the oldest forms of wheeled transport but they are also beginning to be recognised as part of a better future for inner-city travel; a quiet, reliable and non-polluting way to get around. Over the last ten years we have started to see more cycle rickshaws in European cities – even London’s traffic-choked Oxford Street has a few brave grey rickshaws hustling amid the black cabs and bus farts.
In India, cycle rickshaws aren’t just in city centres; they are everywhere. The Initiative for Transportation and Development Programmes (ITDP) India estimates that 70 million motorised trips are saved, thanks to the cycle rickshaw, every day.
They are also often the quickest way in India to get down narrow, crowded streets, weaving in-between a chaotic combination of people, animals and traffic whilst cars and other vehicles get stuck. They are the only means of transport for many of the country’s poor, those who can’t afford the bus, let alone a taxi or a car.
Indian rickshaws are a lot more primitive than their European counterparts; one gear, little in the way of brake pads and a lack of suspension make riding over potholed roads a real test on the spine, but this slight discomfort is worth it when you are zipping through busy bazaars, down narrow streets and along gridlocked roads taking in the beautiful smells and colours of India.
A study in 2007 by the ITDP India discovered that in a survey of 1100 cycle rickshaw drivers in Delhi, 54% were landless labourers and over 30% small/marginal farmers who had migrated to the city in search of work and food during lean growing seasons.
Migrant workers will typically rent a rickshaw from a rickshaw landlord. Buying a new one can cost around £100 whereas the cost of renting one for the day varies from 30 to 60p. This may not sound like much, but it’s around 30% of the average daily earnings of a rickshaw driver. Owning your own rickshaw can be a way out of poverty, making the driver self-sufficient as he keeps all of the money from fares and has the option of renting it out at night or whenever he’s not using it. Many charities are keen to supply rickshaws to poor communities because of the independence they can bring. A rickshaw can change the fortunes of a whole family overnight.
In 2006, the authorities in Delhi blamed the cycle rickshaw for causing congestion in and around Chandni Chowk, the heart of the old city, beside the ancient Red Fort. This led to an all-out ban in the area being passed by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and a limiting of the number of rickshaw licences to 100,000, outlawing the other estimated 900,00 cycle rickshaws in Delhi. Those found without the requisite papers would have their cycle rickshaws seized and, if unable to pay a penalty, crushed into scrap metal.
If you have been to India you will know how bad congestion can get in its cities, which leads to a barrage of car horns and roiling smog. This is where the cycle rickshaw comes into its own, weaving in-between the cars, buses and carts.
The Delhi rickshaw ban was affecting the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in India – those lacking in both skills and literacy. It hit not only the driver but also his family, rickshaw repairmen, and those too poor to ride the bus. The ITDP claim that 2% of India’s population rely on the trade for their daily bread. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s decision was seen as an attack on the right to livelihood of the poor and an act of favouritism towards the middle and upper classes, giving them the right of the road, as no limit was made on cars whatsoever.
This decision also laid a precedent; plans were mooted to ban rickshaws in other parts of Delhi and in other cities. Mumbai and Bangalore suggested banning cycle rickshaws altogether. This lead to several groups including the ITDP to campaign against the ban by organising peaceful demonstrations, organising cycle rallies through Delhi, putting pressure on Indian MPs and challenging the cycle rickshaw ban in the High Court of Delhi.
In 2010, the Delhi High Court ruled that the Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s rickshaw ban was unconstitutional, rejecting the suggestion that cycle rickshaws were the cause of congestion. The ruling had importance not just for the population of Delhi, but also to the people of Mumbai, Bangalore and other cities that had banned cycle rickshaws, completely overruling the precedent and creating a new one.
It was in Chandni Chowk that I took my maiden voyage on a rickshaw. Having spent the morning of my first day in India as one of the many tourists at the Red Fort, I decided to head back to my hostel. I spent the next two hours walking through the narrow winding roads of Chandni Chowk – which from a bird’s eye view probably resembled a hedge maze – only to find myself back at the Red Fort. I decided to give it another shot, trying to get through the other side by tracing the mental breadcrumbs I had made with certain shops, but after another hour I had become a little distraught and was starting to wilt in the heat. No travel guide map was going to help. It was at this point I heard a voice behind me: “Rickshaw?”
I hopped on and was quickly swerving down busy streets, watching the city whirl around me. I was on my way back to my hostel. If it wasn’t for that fleet, faded old cycle rickshaw I might still be wandering the streets of Chandni Chowk to this day….